No High School Debate Experience? No Problem

By Rebecca Heller, Georgetown University ’16

Author’s Note: This article is intended for all novices, but it is specifically geared towards people who did not participate in high school debate. If you did participate in high school debate, consider reading this article as well.

Joining APDA can be trickier—and more intimidating—if you don’t have high school debate experience. The debate terms and jargon are new, flowing is confusing, giving speeches can be daunting, and it can be hard to join the social scene if you don’t know other high school debaters.

Personally, I attended a grand total of one debate tournament in high school, and I only went because my school required it. Fourteen-year-old me had no desire to go, and so I didn’t prepare at all, then sat unhappily during the debate round, doodling instead of writing down the other team’s arguments. When it was my turn to speak, I stood up, said something like “Judge, you should support my side because my teacher is requiring that I give a speech,” and then sat back down. If I recall correctly, the judge rightfully wrote on my ballot that I seemed “sullen.”

Though I took no interest in high school debate, I now enjoy APDA. This guide is intended to provide some information for people who join APDA with no high school debate experience. Here are some tips:

  • Success takes time. Don’t compare yourself to the people who did high school debate. Novices who did high school debate tend to dominate novice results during first semester every year. This is natural—many of them have had four years of debate practice already. Try to remember that APDA success in the long run does not strongly correlate to whether you did high school debate, and that the high school debate advantage generally disappears after novice year. Many of APDA’s best debaters had no high school experience.
  • Do not live and die by your NOTY ranking. This point is similar to the last one, but it’s important enough that it bears repeating. It’s natural that the NOTY board is often dominated by people who did high school debate. If you look at the SOTY board, though, you’ll see that the same is not true there. Many of APDA’s best debaters were not ranked in the top 10 (or the top 20, or the top 30) on the NOTY board. Your NOTY ranking will not define your debate career.
  • Reach out to varsity. If you’re from a school that doesn’t have a lot of institutional support—or even if you’re from a school that does—feel free to talk to varsity in GA or after your rounds. Most varsity are eager to help. Though approaching them for help can seem intimidating, most people will be flattered if you ask for their help or advice.
  • Reach out to the committees. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the Novice Mentor and Expansion Committees or to Women’s Initiative. The people on these committees are there because they want to help novices, so they hope to hear from you. All of the committees have hybrid requirements for their members, meaning that even very experienced committee members are willing to debate with novices. Doing a hybrid with someone from a committee can be valuable both in gaining debating skills and in meeting new people on the circuit. You can sign up for a hybrid with each of these committees.
  • Take weekends off. APDA can be a phenomenal experience, and it’s easy to want to go to tournaments every weekend. For your own mental health, try to take weekends off. You’ll come back more excited about debate, you’ll avoid burnout, and, most importantly, you’ll get to experience some of the important things that happen on your school’s campus on weekends. If you’re starting to dislike debate because it’s too intense or stressful, think about taking a few weekends off and seeing if you like it more when you return.
  • Remember your end goals. Personally, I joined debate because I saw a demo round at my school. The four debaters in it were so eloquent that I joined simply because I wanted to be able to speak like they did. Debate gives you a unique opportunity to speak about issues that are important to you and to run cases about literally whatever you want. Try to remember these (and other) benefits of debate rather than becoming obsessed with how well you do at every tournament. Competitive success is important to many people, and that’s reasonable. However, try not to dwell too much on your competitive success weekend by weekend. Remember that even at tournaments that don’t go the way you want them to, you are gaining phenomenal skills by participating. It’s especially important to remember this if you’re a novice who’s completely new to debate. It takes a while for many people to pick up the skill, and there’s a steep learning curve at the beginning.

APDA is a different experience if you weren’t a high school debater. Perhaps you’re not yet sure whether you want to stick around. Perhaps you know you love APDA and know you want to stay, but you’re working to develop a healthy relationship with debate. These are tips that have helped me, and I hope they’ll help you as well. Debate can be an extremely rewarding experience—and we on APDA hope that you stick around.

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